Lotte Berk

Disciplined dancer and creator of the Lotte Berk system of physical exercise

Liselotte Heymansohn, dancer and teacher: born Cologne, Germany 17 January 1913; married 1933 Ernest Berk (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1963 Herbert Riese (marriage dissolved); died Hungerford, Berkshire 4 November 2003.

With her glossy mahogany hair, wide, boldly lipsticked mouth and gleaming, mischievous almond eyes, Lotte Berk had looks as vivid as her personality. Her racy private life alone would have been worth recording, but she also left behind a famous system of physical exercise.

The Lotte Berk technique became an integral part of 1960s and 1970s culture, her classes bristling with celebrities and socialites. While Vidal Sassoon looked after the fashion set's hair and Mary Quant their clothes, people said, Lotte Berk looked after their figures. But her system was to prove more than a fad and even today is going strong the world over.

She was born Liselotte Heymansohn in Cologne in 1913 into a Jewish family. Her Russian father came from a family of tailors and built a chain of menswear shops in Germany. Her mother was German and died of a stroke when Lotte was eight. Lotte was chauffeured around in her father's six-seater Mercedes and to please him studied the piano for 11 years. She, though, wanted to be a dancer and trained at the school set up in Cologne by the seminal modern dance artist Mary Wigman.

It was at this school that Lotte met her first husband Ernest (or Ernst) Berk, whose family was English although he had been born in Germany. She had rung the doorbell to enter the building and Ernest, another student, opened the door. It was love at first sight. They married in 1933, when Lotte was 20, and their daughter Esther was born in 1934.

The couple gave dance performances in Cologne, but Nazism was tightening its grip and German Jews were leaving. In 1938, two hours before a dance concert by Lotte and Ernest was due to take place, the Nazis prohibited her from appearing, posting notices outside the theatre banning entry to "Good Nazis". So she made a grand entrance in the auditorium, just as the conductor was announcing she was too ill to perform, and settled down to watch her husband (who was not Jewish) go ahead on his own. At the end, the conductor brought her up on stage and the audience shouted that she should dance. She couldn't, but instead she said, "Thank you for not being Nazis."

Her father and his second wife were both to die in Auschwitz, but Lotte, Ernest and Esther managed to escape Germany for England in 1938, thanks to Ernest's British passport. They left in a train, which was risky as trains were searched, and they took the precaution of hiding their money between sheets of music and inside Lotte's sanitary towels. Arriving in London, they found temporary shelter in a large house between Holland Park and Notting Hill which received Jewish refugees. Each family had one room and shared the single gas stove on every landing.

Mimi, their German maid, had travelled with them, despite the fact they couldn't pay her wages. They were so happy Mimi had stayed - especially the undomesticated Lotte - that, while Esther slept in a suitcase and Lotte and Ernest slept on the floor, Mimi was given the bed.

The family moved all over London, finally settling down in Shepherd's Bush in 1941. Lotte worked as a model at Heatherley's School of Fine Art and as a freelance dancer - appearing with Marie Rambert's company, in operas at Glyndebourne, in musicals. She toured the UK with ENSA, performing for the troops. The directors of these shows noticed her striking looks and would give her small featured roles.

Nearing 40, she felt, like most dancers in those days, that she should retire. After she did, though, she noticed to her horror that her petite physique (just under 5ft 4in) was turning to flab. She was also plunged into depression following an unhappy love affair. It was her old friend Ann Mankowitz and her husband, the writer and dramatist Wolf Mankowitz, who urged her to exploit her dance skills to start an exercise class. With the help of an osteopath, Lotte Berk developed a system and opened her basement studio at 29 Manchester Street in the West End of London. Ann Mankowitz was her first student and helped to bring in a crowd of famous clients: Britt Ekland, Edna O'Brien, Siân Phillips, Joan Collins. Barbra Streisand also came - but only for one session and kept her hat on all the way through.

As her daughter Esther explains, Lotte's system incorporated barre and floor work and was accessible to "any man or woman off the street", except that the classes were for women only. Focusing on pelvic tilts and tiny, but rigorously demanding movements, the exercises tone - her students might say torture - the muscles in a deep, concentrated and specific way. This strengthens them to tighten body shape and hold knee and hip joints secure.

Some positions look erotic or immodest: a fact Lotte Berk acknowledged in her typically raucous way, by giving them names such as "The Prostitute" and "The Peeing Dog" - today's generation of teachers coyly call them something else - and asking students to lie on their backs "as if they are making love". She was playful and beguiling, fierce and terrifying. Her pupils simultaneously adored and feared her. Highly disciplined, she practised what she preached and grew old beautifully with the trimmest, fittest body imaginable and an immaculate clothes sense.

Berk's sexual frankness befitted someone whose appetite for men created a colourful life. She was proud of her success. "But she would say she was frightened of going to heaven," remembers her daughter Esther, "because all her lovers would be waiting for her there." When a well-dressed man greeted her by name in the street one day, she stopped, surprised. "Do I know you?" she asked. "Have I slept with you?" "No, Lotte," he replied. "I'm your landlord."

Her marriage to Ernest Berk was of the "open" kind and ended after 30 years. She liked to say she had been married seven times, because she had lived with seven men, but she had been married only twice "on paper". Her second marriage, when she was 50, was to Herbert Riese. It lasted just three weeks, but they remained close friends for years, meeting for breakfast every day in a café near her studio. Then she divorced him, just for something to do. "She felt she had to rattle the cage," says Esther. "She had to have drama and things happening."

Lotte Berk retired from active teaching at 80, but continued to prowl about the classes long after. Five years ago, she left her Shepherd's Bush flat to join Esther in Hungerford, Berkshire, where she lived until her last illness.

In her Manchester Street basement she had trained many disciples, able to continue her method - although Callan Pinckney, who attended Lotte Berk classes in 1971, called her adaptation Callanetics and used it to make a fortune. A Lotte Berk Studio was opened in Fulham, south-west London; another in Hungerford under Esther's management. The Lotte Berk technique is now taught in New York, California, Zurich and Rome - but not Australia, and Australia, says Esther, is the future target.

Nadine Meisner

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